The 'new' and 'old' anti-Semitism blighting France

By

Several rallies denouncing anti-Semitism in France were held on Tuesday evening in Paris, in reaction to a recent spate of anti-Semitic acts across the country, the latest of which was the desecration overnight Monday of tombstones in a Jewish cemetery near the eastern city of Strasbourg. Meanwhile, official figures show a 74 percent year-on year rise in anti-Semitic acts recorded by police in France in 2018. Mediapart asked Nonna Mayer, a specialist in anti-Semitism and emeritus research director with France’s national scientific research centre, the CNRS, for her insight into the growth of anti-Semitic acts recorded in the country, her analysis of the different motives behind the anti-Semitism, and her views on how best to respond to the problem.

This article is freely available. Check out our subscription offers. Subscribe

The number of reported crimes of anti-Semitism in France rose to 541 in 2018, compared to 311 in 2017, a year-on-year rise of 74%. The 2018 figures, which followed a two-year fall in reported incidents targeting Jews, included the stabbing murder in Paris of an 85-year-old widow, Mireille Knoll, and 80 assaults, some of them attempted murders, 358 threats of violence, and 102 incidents of attacks on properties, prompting interior minister Christophe Castaner to comment earlier this month that, “Anti-Semitism is spreading like poison”.

The most recent incidents include the desecration of a memorial to Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish man who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered because of his origins, the daubing of swastikas on postboxes in Paris decorated with portraits of the late politician Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor, and the spray-painting of “Juden” (German for “Jews”) on a bagel bakery in the capital.

On Saturday, controversial French essayist and commentator Alain Finkielkraut, a Jew, was filmed being verbally abused as a “dirty Zionist” by a small group on the sidelines of a demonstration by so-called ‘yellow vests’, members of the three-month movement of anti-government street protests against falling living standards among the lower-paid. Overnight Monday, tombs in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France were desecrated with painted swastikas.

Nonna Mayer taking part in a 'Mediapart Live' debate in 2017. © Mediapart Nonna Mayer taking part in a 'Mediapart Live' debate in 2017. © Mediapart

Prompted by Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure, a rally denouncing anti-Semitism was held in Paris on Tuesday evening, attended by leaders of most political parties (excluding the far-right which was not invited), and also Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and members of his government.

Separate rallies on Tuesday included one by the far-left NPA party and several Jewish organisations in north Paris, protesting anti-Semitic acts and their “instrumentalization”, and another by the far-right Rassemblement National (former Front National) which denounced the rise of “Islamist networks”, a favourite theme of the party whose founder and former leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has several convictions for anti-Jewish and negationist jibes.

For French political scientist Nonna Mayer, a specialist in anti-Semitism and an emeritus research director with France’s national scientific research centre, the CNRS, the latest peaks in ant-Semitic acts correspond with the heightening in violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between March and July last year, and also with the advent of the ‘yellow vest’ protests that began in November and which have been latched onto by unbridled extremist groups. In this interview with Mediapart, she details the latent forms of anti-Semitism which, she argues, needs only a timely opportunity to erupt again, while she also sees a positive evolution of broad French public opinion in rejection of anti-Semitism.

-------------------------

Mediapart: What is the explanation for the 74% rise in 2018 of anti-Semitic acts reported to police and gendarmerie services?

Nonna Mayer: The number of anti-Semitic acts and threats is to be taken with precaution, because not all acts are reported, and do not always lead to the submission of a complaint. Above all, the figures must be put into perspective. Anti-Semitic acts and violence were residual at the end of the 1990s, climbing strongly when the second intifada broke out in 2000.

Since that date, the peaks in violence correspond with the Israeli interventions in the territories – 936 acts in 2002, 974 in 2004, 832 in 2009 – which were widely reported in the media and denounced. The latest peak corresponds with the Protective Edge operation in 2014, with 851 [editor’s note, anti-Semitic] acts [in France]. Having fallen since then, they rose again in 2018, with 541 acts compared to 311 the previous year. The [Middle East] conflict is in no way the cause, it is the trigger for those who, for one reason or another, identify themselves with the Palestinians and target French Jews who they assimilate with Israel and Zionism.

A march in homage to Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor who was murdered in an anti-Semitic attack in Paris in March 2018. A man bears on his back a list of names of Jews murdered in France in recent years, which ends with the message: ‘Murdered because Jewish’. © LF A march in homage to Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor who was murdered in an anti-Semitic attack in Paris in March 2018. A man bears on his back a list of names of Jews murdered in France in recent years, which ends with the message: ‘Murdered because Jewish’. © LF

Mediapart: Why was there such a peak after a two-year fall in reported incidents?

N.M.: From March to July 2018, an initial rise was observed, precisely linked to the conflict in the Middle East. It was the period of the “Great March of Return” [a series of Palestinian protests, referring to the reclaim of their former land, held along the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip that began on March 30th 2018], with the launching of burning kites and the controversy over the Israeli sniper action [which caused the deaths of at least 120 Palestinians, and the wounding of around 4,000 others].

The second peak, from November to December, corresponds with the ‘yellow vest’ movement. It is not anti-Semitic as such, but it is easily manipulated by extremist groups. All demonstrations are propitious to letting off steam, and whip up the excitable elements, the yellow vests more than others because of the eruptive, proliferate and unorganised nature of the movement. Above all, it is first and foremost a movement against the elites. Since his election, Emmanuel Macron has been the target of anti-Semitic caricatures, playing on  his time at the Rothschild bank, an equation according to which ‘Macron equals Rothschild which equals big banks which equals Jews’.

Finally, it is a movement which first developed via the social media, which is propitious for the spreading of fake news, for anti-Semitic themes and conspiracy theories, in the lineage of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.     

If we take into account more distant causes, there is the context of social and economic insecurity since the 2008 crisis, which lends itself to the seeking of scapegoats. There is an always latent anti-Semitism, with arguments that have settled as a sediment over time, and which only needs the opportunity to rise back up to the surface. There is Christian anti-Judaism, which has it that Jews are a deicidal people; leftwing anti-Semitism – or the ‘socialism of imbeciles’, which assimilates Jews with the powers of finance and capitalism; there are the wild imaginings of the Nazis about inferior races.

The creation of Israel after WW II changed the image of Jews, no longer accused of being stateless but of having a ‘double allegiance’ – Israel before France. Then, after 1967 and the occupation of the Palestinian territories, came the idea that David had become Goliath, that the victims of yesterday were the executioners of today. Without forgetting either the rise of radical Islamism and of the jihad, making Jews the symbol par excellence of a hated Western world.

Extend your reading on Mediapart Unlimited access to the Journal free contribution in the Club Subscribe